The Vastly Underrated Importance of Goofy Little Games

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I love this video because it’s a time machine to a lost age of childhood. Here, we see hockey superstars Sidney Crosby and Max Talbot travel to the tiny Crosby family basement in Nova Scotia to do what Sidney spent much of his young life doing: shoot pucks into the Crosby family dryer. (Spoiler alert: Crosby is still pretty good.)

Watching this, readers of a certain age might be transported back to their own basements, and the little games played there. At my house, the favorite game involved roller skates, badminton racquets, and high-speed collisions with the radiator covers (which strongly resembled the Crosby dryer).

It turns out this sort of thing is a pattern. Golfer Rory McIlroy learned to play golf by chipping balls into the family washing machine. Hall of Fame ballplayer Willie Mays practiced hitting by swinging at bottle caps with a broomstick. Cricketer Donald Bradman practiced his batting by bouncing a golf ball off a water tank and hitting the rebound. They aren’t alone. Look deeply into the biography of any top athlete, musician, or writer, and you’ll eventually find a kid in a basement, enraptured by some goofy little game they invented.

So here’s my question: In a world where so much of youth life is highly organized and regimented, do these goofy little games still happen? Do they matter?

I think they do matter. Not just because they’re fun, but also because they’re the crucial learning space where skills are built and refined. Four reasons why goofy little games are important:

  • More engagement: the kid owns the space and sets the rules. Instead of being passive reactors, they are coach, player, and crowd all in one.
  • More focused repetition: kids are not limited by official practice hours or the strategies of a coach. Want to play? Play. Want to obsessively focus on a single move? Do it.
  • Improved creativity: conventional practice is great for fundamentals, but creativity is not built like that. It’s built by messing around: experimenting, trying stuff that might seem crazy in normal settings (for a nice example of this, check out Crosby’s eyes-closed shot to win the game at the 2:20 mark).

The deeper question is, in today’s hyper-organized world, how do you encourage goofy little games? How do you create the sort of environments where a kid can build skills on their own, even if it means absolutely destroying the family dryer?

I’d love to hear any ideas you might have.

(Big thanks to Trevor Parent of the University of Maine at Presque Isle for sharing the video.)


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10 Responses to “The Vastly Underrated Importance of Goofy Little Games”

  1. doc says:

    When I was a kid we used to get on the front porch and put a metal trash can against the wall. We used a wadded up sheet of paper and hit with a tennis racquet. Pitcher stood about 10-12 feet away and no one knew which way the wadded up paper would go. Really helped our reaction time and focus. We made up our own rules on hits and runs but if the paper hit the trash can it was a strike and if not a ball.

  2. Kl says:

    Lets see more street hockey for these kids. All I can remember was going to the park playing street hockey and stick ball(these kids don’t even kow what stick ball is). These kids need to have fun and stop being so organized with kids. Let kids be kids

  3. Rich Kent says:

    I loved this video for the memories it brought back. I grew up in a ski racing family of 5 in small town Maine. Throughout our neighborhood (and yes, in our basement), we kids invented countless games, double-dares, and contests that tested our cardio capacities, balance, eye-hand, nerve, and composure. Most of those games would now require helmets, arm pads, insurance release forms, and mouth guards, but that was the 1960s—and we just played.

    I’m remembering how our high school ski coach, Herb Adams, “invented” a golf course soccer game for our ski practices. Picture late fall in Maine: frozen ground, two teams of 15-20 kids each running nonstop for 2 hours on 18, tee-to-green playing fields… rules devised on the fly.

    Years later, as a ski and soccer coach, I did my best to create an approach on my teams that captured the joy of the dryer-goal-hockey boys, Herbie’s soccer golf, and our lawless neighborhood games sans mouth guards. Did it work? Some Sunday afternoons, I’d drive by the town’s athletic complex and see a slew of my players on an improvised 800-yard pitch playing capture-the-flag with soccer balls… rules devised on the fly.

  4. Walter says:

    My 9 year old does this often today! He is a soccer nut and will head downstairs and ALONE will play a soccer game and he takes turns being 2 teams. He has a tennis ball and the nets are two empty kleenex boxes. Plays by himself and you can hear him calling out players names and basically announcing a play by play. Pretty hilarious and when one of us goes down to the laundry room, he quickly quiets up and stops playing and then starts up again when we leave. Forgot to mention, his U10 soccer team is a very strong travel team that have won many tournaments. This is a game/idea he created on his own and at times will play this anywhere from 45 minutes to 1hour (I guess it’s better than PS3?)He’s very pationate about soccer!

  5. Trevor says:

    Great piece, Dan! Growing up, my twin brother and I were always playing something (baseball, basketball, soccer, etc). More often than not we ended up playing soccer. We played on the front lawn, in the basement, on a side hill next to the house, and in the driveway.

    Sometimes, we would put down two large barrels, essentially oil/trash drums and play 1 v 1 for hours on end. During the winters in the Western Foothills of Maine, our dad would snow-blow the drive way creating snowbanks on either side, sometimes in excess of six feet high in midwinter. The playable space was approximately 20 feet by 80 feet. We still played 1 v 1, but it wasn’t soccer, it was hocker.

    Hocker was a combination of hockey checking and soccer. The snowbanks were essentially the hockey boards and anything went (besides punching, or the intent to hurt). Checking was very much encouraged. We looked like we were dressed for winter from the waist up with hats, gloves, and a winter jacket. But from the waist down, we wore athletic pants, two pairs of socks, and soccer flats/sneakers.

    It was an awesome game. We were essentially teaching ourselves to be very physical, not worried about getting hurt, tying to control a soccer ball on a very unpredictable surface (slush, mostly packed snow, sometimes patches of ice). Albeit the last part sounds very risky – especially looking back. But we didn’t care. It was fun. Travis probably could correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember starting this game when we were in fifth grade and we played straight through high school.

    Travis and I were blessed with great coaching (thanks, Coach Kent) and a great “basement”.

  6. Rod Roth says:

    I grew up in Latin America. When I was a kid, we played soccer dawn to dusk. After school, it would be three kids, two taking shots against a goalie guarding a gate. Later in the afternoon, it would be five or six more–the high school crowd–so now we’re three or four man teams in the street. Around six, dads and uncles would show up and we might have twenty guys out there. Same after dinner, sometimes until midnight. This was common, and I bet a lot of good pro players came from neighborhoods like mine. My street was cobble stone, by the way. All this was over sixty years ago, Dan. Thanks for taking me back to 1949.

  7. Meyburgh says:

    World champion surfer Kelly Slater mentioned that together with his brother they used to mess around on a surfboard attached to a swing for hours.

  8. t-bone says:

    The deeper question is, in today’s hyper-organized world, how do you encourage goofy little games?

    Quit hyper-organizing it. Let kids be kids. Johnny is not going to get a scholarship based on his performance with his U-10 soccer team.

  9. Another example of a game invented by children who went on to become superstars; In Gary Nevilles (Manchester United and England right back, now a TV pundit) autobiography, he talks about how him and his brother, Phil (Also Manchester United, Everton and England midfielder), played a game against each other. They would put a jacket or jumper on the floor in the park, and the objective was to stop the ball dead on top of it. They said they played for hours against each other just doing that.

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